You’ve decided to grow an organic garden. Hurray! But when you’ve picked up your seed catalogue, you ask yourself — what exactly are organic seeds, how are they different, and should you buy them?
The difference between organic and non-organic seeds is that non-organic seeds are grown using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, while organic seeds are grown using natural fertilizers and pest control methods, often with a focus on regenerating soil health and the surrounding ecosystem.
What’s the difference between organic and non-organic seeds?
It’s easiest to start with what conventional, or non-organic, seeds are.
Non-organic seeds are produced through conventional agricultural methods, meaning that the plants are sprayed with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. All of which have been found to have detrimental effects to just about everything they touch, from the soil and ecosystem to the people farming and living by farms to the people who eat the products.
They’re cheaper because while farmers do need to buy all the chemicals to spray with, they don’t need to hire as much labor to tackle weeds and pests.
Organic seeds are the same seeds as non-organic but grown through organic farming practices. Organic practices include replacing synthetic amendments with natural, organic amendments, and encouraging the natural ecosystem and the soil to reduce weed and pest pressure.
Since organic seeds require more labor, they’re priced higher than non-organic seeds.
Organic seeds can either be uncertified or certified organic.
What is the difference between organic and certified organic seeds?
The difference between organic and certified organic seed is that while both use organic methods, only certified organic seed is verified by a third party.
Certified organic means three things:
- The farm’s practices are regulated by independent third-party agencies (like the National Organic Program in the US and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency).
- Farms are regularly inspected for compliance and to renew their certification.
- Farms don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or treated seeds. They can however use organic pesticides that are allowed by the regulating bodies.
It doesn’t mean that the seeds are grown in a sustainable or regenerative way. It just means that the seeds are grown according to regulations, not that they grow to the spirit of organics (which is healing the environment or at least to not cause more damage). Organic farms can look just like conventional farms, just with different chemicals being sprayed.
Certified organic isn’t necessarily better than uncertified. As having a certified organic seal on the label means more profits, large farming companies have lobbied the third-party agencies to make regulations most practical on a large scale. Small-scale farmers often find that getting certified is impractical and too costly, but still produce seed that is up to the same standard or higher as certified organic seed companies. And they’re growing seed in a sustainable or regenerative way.
As using the word “organic” itself is not restricted (only the actual seal), anyone can claim their product is organic. When buying seed from a non-certified organic farmer you don’t know, ask them what practices they use to grow their seed or look through their website.
Are organic seeds non-GMO?
Only farmers can buy GMO seeds, so if you’re a home grower, you don’t need to worry. GMO seed research is really expensive, and home growers just aren’t a big enough market to make it worth it.
The only time that seeds might contain GMO genes is if they cross-pollinate with a GMO crop. Cross-pollination like this won’t happen with most vegetables, but crops that are wind-pollinated over long distances (like corn) are susceptible.
Seed farmers (whether organic or non-organic) work hard to keep this cross-pollination from happening, because it’s bad for their business if people complain that they didn’t get the variety the seed packet promised. Organic certification also depends on the farmer’s ability to prevent cross-pollination with other crops.
F1 Hybrids are not GMO. GMO seeds are made by splicing plant genes. F1 Hybrids are created through intentional cross-pollination, which is how plant varieties have been created for centuries. F1 Hybrid seeds can be grown organically but are usually patented by the seed company that bred it. (You can save your own organic seeds through F1 Hybrids, but they’re not stable, so you may get quite a surprise when you grow them.)
Are heirloom seeds organic?
Heirloom seeds (also known as open-pollinated seeds) can be grown either organically or conventionally. All heirloom seed means is that they’ve been grown for fifty years or more and will produce seed that reliably grows into the same variety. (They’re essentially F1 Hybrids that are a few generations or more down the line.)
Are organic seeds better for your health?
A lot of home growers swear up and down that the organic seeds that they use produce tastier vegetables, the vegetables are more nutritious, and the plants are hardier since the parent plants have to weather more pest and disease pressure to even get to the seed.
There’s not enough research to back up their anecdotal evidence.
I think a lot of what the many blog posts say actually comes down to two other factors: landrace plants and regenerative gardening practices.
Landrace varieties have been selectively bred over time to grow well in a certain region. These are the varieties that will grow best in your area, withstanding pest and disease pressure better. If you pick up a seed catalogue, most of the organic seeds will just be the same varieties as the non-organic, just grown differently.
Secondly, caring for the soil makes it easier for plants to thrive, and rich soil and compost full of nutrients is likely to allow the vegetables to put more beneficial nutrients into what you harvest.
If you’d like to see if these claims are true, try growing organic for yourself. But they’re not the best reason to get into organic seeds, which I’ll get into next.
Why buy organic seeds?
The main reason to buy organic seeds over conventional seeds is to support organic seed farmers and to take a stand against pesticides.
Farmers apply more pesticides to crops grown for seed than they do for produce, since there are fewer regulations over-spraying non-food products and the vegetables need to grow longer to go to seed.
When you buy organic seed, you’re helping to reduce the millions of tons of pesticides and herbicides that are being dumped on crops every year. It’s what’s best for the earth, for the health of the farmers, and every creature who live around those farms.
The more demand there is for organic seeds, the more different varieties you’ll be able to buy organic, the more farmers will get into growing organic seed.
Conventional seeds are a little bit cheaper and have a lot more varieties available (especially at the moment, disease-resistant F1 hybrids), both of which might be tempting. But if you’re serious about helping the environment and growing organic food, then vote with your dollar. Give your money to someone who’s regenerating their farmland.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.